January 2013 - Vol. 65
This three part series was originally written as a Master's Thesis for a degree requirement at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA. While it was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. The author welcomes input and questions. -ed.
A. Sabbath in
the Old Testament
1. God Creates
The first mention of the sabbath is at the beginning of the biblical narrative at the conclusion of the creation account. In Genesis 2:1-3, we hear that God himself rested on the seventh day. The first thing to note is that the author repeats several terms in the three short sentences of this passage: the seventh day (three times); God rested (twice); and the work which he had done (three times).
The repetition of the “seventh day” highlights the significance of the day both because of the use of the number seven4 and because none of the other days in the creation account are mentioned more than once. A philological link between the word “sabbath” and “seven” in Hebrew noted by scholars5 further strengthens the connection between the seventh day of creation and the sabbath. The term “rested” is contrasted with the work God did on the other days, and its primary sense is to “desist from work.”6
Finally, the word for work is the ordinary word for human work. Perhaps, as one commentator suggests, “this word was deliberately chosen to hint that man should stop his daily work on the seventh day.”7
God's purpose of the sabbath day
This brief account of the first sabbath places the practice of keeping a day set apart within the very fabric of creation. The sabbath initially, in the order of revelation, is not a result of a special relationship with the God of the covenant, but is rather a part of the natural order of things. As Bruce Vawter writes, the author of Genesis is “declaring the Sabbath rest proper for men in general and not simply an important observance of Judaism.”9
The theme of creation is then revisited in Exodus when the LORD instructs his people on a way of life: his third “word” in the Decalogue is to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). The first part of this command is stated in the positive unlike most of the other ten commands. Verse 8 acts as a header for the fuller explanation of the commandment: Israel is to remember and to keep holy. The explanation for this commandment as it is given here in Exodus is based on the example of creation when God rested on the seventh day.
The people of God, as heirs of Adam and Eve, made in the image of the creator (Genesis 1:26-28), are to rest as well. Both this version of the third commandment and the one in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 list all the members of the household as being under this commandment. Vawter writes that “the later rabbis proposed the sabbath as a mark of man’s basic equality, since on that day all became one, rich and poor, those to whom leisure was a way of life and those for whom it was a surcease from backbreaking labor.”10
Expression of loyalty to God
Creation roots of the sabbath
Second, the seven day pattern of rest is in harmony with the order of the world and more specifically its Creator.
Third, this commandment hearkens back to the goodness of the Creator and the goodness of creation itself. Keeping this day holy enables God’s people to be filled with awe at “the One who brought all things into being from nothing.”13
Fourth and last, the sabbath recalls a seventh day which in the creation account has no end. Unlike the other six days of creation, the description of the seventh day does not contain the expected formulaic conclusion14 which suggests an open end to the account. As Göran Larsson writes, “it is a day that transcends our temporal existence. It gives a taste of eternity.”15
Sabbath structure of creation
Second, the celebration of the sabbath, from a creation account perspective, is intended to remind and make present the truth that “the worship of God, his freedom, and his rest come first. Thus and only thus can the human being truly live.”17 The covenant reveals the love of God for his creatures and the sabbath is a means to remember this love.
Third, Scott Hahn proposes audaciously that the word for “seventh” found in Genesis 2:2 is closely linked to the Hebrew word shava, which is the verb for swearing a covenant oath. He concludes that the sabbath is the first swearing of a covenant in the Old Testament: “The seventh day, then, was the sign of the covenant – the sacrament of the covenant. Its name was used synonymously with the covenant.”18
Apart from the sabbath, all other measurements of time in the Scriptures are based on the natural and observable cycles of the created order such as days, months, seasons, and years. The sabbath is the only unit of time that is given by the word of God alone. The sabbath is a revealed unit of time. The creation account centered on God as creator is the first and primary motivation for keeping the sabbath in the Old Testament.
2. God Delivers
When the LORD instructs Israel on the sabbath in Deuteronomy, the reason given for keeping this day holy is because God delivered Israel from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). This second motivation for keeping the sabbath holy is rooted in God’s salvific action, as distinguished from his creative action. God’s redeeming work is to be remembered and the sabbath is the means by which Israel is to effect this calling to mind. On a weekly basis Israel must remember her Redeemer and all his wonderful works.
A work of re-creation
A celebration of remembering
3. God Provides
The third reason given in the Old Testament for keeping a day holy is the importance of trusting in God. The story of miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness is punctuated by the command to rest from collecting the divine sustenance on the seventh day (Exodus 16:23-29). Even before the third commandment is given, the practice of rest every seven days is instituted. The provision of manna was surely cause for trust in God, yet in his wisdom, he gives twice as much on the sixth day so that Israel would rest on the seventh day.
On the seventh day, as the people enjoy the sabbath, they are to trust God even more, because their food is from him and will not fail them. Rest is instituted within the framework of complete trust in God for survival in the wilderness. Childs claims that this passage has a joyful ring to it: “The sabbath is not a day to go hungry and mourn. Rather Israel is to eat, for ‘today’ is God’s special day. Later tradition expanded greatly on the theme of the joy of the sabbath, but the kernel of the theme is already present in the manna story.”22
A perpetual covenant and sign forever
An eternal sabbath
A sign that endures
As mentioned earlier, there are numerous other Old Testament passages referring to the sabbath. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Nehemiah all offer further insight into the understanding of the sabbath but due to the limited scope of this thesis, these passages will not be addressed here. In the next issue I will study the biblical teaching of the third commandment in the New Testament.
Go to Part 2 >Keeping the Lord’s Day in the New Testament
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